HELSINKI — Add Ron Wilson’s name to the list of those who questioned the job Team Canada head coach Dave Lowry did at the world junior championship.
When asked for his thoughts on Canada’s disappointing sixth-place finish in the tournament, the Team USA head coach jokingly replied “Who?” before saying that an undisciplined Canadian team “shot themselves in the foot” in a 6-5 penalty-filled loss to Finland in the quarter-finals on Saturday.
What made Wilson laugh, however, was that he had warned Lowry about the importance of staying out of the penalty box and it apparently went ignored.
“I had mentioned to their coach before the game, you’ve got to make sure you don’t take any penalties because penalties will kill you especially against Finland,” said Wilson, whose team advanced to the semifinal by beating the Czech Republic 7-0 on Saturday. “Finland had the best power play coming in and they took some penalties I guess — I never saw any of the game, I saw highlights of it — and you could say that they got what they deserve.
“When you’re living and dying by the penalty, you can’t do that.”
Canada, which took 10 penalties in a 5-2 loss against Sweden in the preliminary round, was penalized nine times against Finland. With the score tied in the third period, forward Jake Virtanen was called for both slashing and tripping on one play. Shortly after, defenceman Joe Hicketts received a delay-of-game penalty for shooting the puck the length over the ice and over the glass behind Finland’s net.
With a 5-on-3 man-advantage, Finland scored its second power play goal of the game and won.
While Virtanen said his temper got the best of him — “I was pretty mad that he was calling (the first penalty)” — Wilson said it is the coach’s responsibility for ensuring that the team keeps its composure.
“We’ve only taken a few penalties in this tournament and we’re not going to change tomorrow,” Wilson said of the upcoming semifinal game against Russia on Monday. “We’re not going to set out to try and beat up Russia or anything like that. We’re going to play our game, which is a speed game fortunately and a puck possession game.
“We’ve stressed that and our guys have bought into that.”
Part of that buy-in means there are consequences for deviating from the plan. If Wilson had a player like Canada’s Virtanen, who was in penalty trouble the entire tournament and received three penalties against Finland, he would have kept playing him. Instead, he would have been benched.
That never happened under Lowry.
“That’s a coaching decision, no question,” said Hockey Canada president and CEO Tom Renney. “I support the coaching decisions that were made. They were not easy decisions to make … sometimes your guts are your brains standing behind the bench. Whether or not if you’ve coached hockey or played hockey even, it’s irrelevant.
“There are times when your intuition has to serve you and it might not please everyone but you have to do what your guts are telling you to do and everyone has to live with that, good or bad, and we accept that responsibility.”
For Wilson, watching Canada flame out of a tournament in which it was hyped as a favourite was not particularly surprising. He always thought there was too much pressure on the Canadian team, having criticized TSN earlier in the world junior championship for the way it covered an event for teenagers.
Still, after defeating Canada 4-2 in the preliminary round, Wilson was disappointed that a rematch for gold was no longer possible.
“Oh, for sure, I was hoping that it would take place,” Wilson said of playing the Canadians again. “But, you know, when you watch the game last night they were always on the edge of taking an extra penalty and they did.
“They were whistled for it and they had to pay the price for it.”